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  • Writer's pictureWei Azim Hung

A Brief Overview of Chinese Nationalism, KMT Legacy, and Taiwanese Nationalism

Updated: Oct 16, 2023


The emphasis on a unique national heritage assumes the presence of a separate culture that is often depicted as a primordial, unchanging tradition that has been preserved by group members over time and must be safeguarded in the same way. In other words, the nation must distinguish itself by substantiating by a ‘unique culture’ which it owns and represents. To some extent, culture and the nation are mutually constitutive, dependent and reinforce one another. For instance, one possible method where the Chinese state (PRC and sometimes ROC) derives its legitimacy is through propagating and protecting the elusive notion of ‘5,000 years’ of Chinese civilization, history, tradition, heritage, and hence ‘culture’ of the Chinese nation.

American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein has provocatively argued that the concept of each nation having a unique and uniform culture is simply a myth. While Wallerstein may be correct that culture is a dynamic process, and therefore never unified or homogenous, Taiwanese sociologist Wang Horng-luen has pushed this notion further by examining sites where national ‘culture’ is constantly mediated, (re)-shaped, and (re)-produced – such as national heritage and language.

KMT in Taiwan: Establishing Historical Continuity and Legitimacy

Since 1949, Taiwan has experienced three distinct phases of nation-building, each highlighting different aspects of its history and identity. The initial phase (1949-1988) placed significant emphasis on Taiwan's role in rescuing "China" from communist bandits. To accomplish this, the KMT employed "bridging" strategies due to its limited access to the physical Chinese mainland.

These strategies involved manufacturing the perception of an unbroken Chinese history following its relocation to Taiwan. As Wang asserts, these methods encompass both tangible elements such as streets and artifacts, as well as intangible components like language and memories. They were institutionalized to create the illusion of a genuine and substantial entity, supporting the notion of continuity.

As an illustration, during the initial phase of nation-building, one concrete approach employed to establish a connection between Taiwan and mainland China was the renaming of streets and roads in Taiwan after the Chinese provinces. This practice involved taking the names of places from mainland China and applying them to locations in Taiwan, allowing people to easily remember and identify with their Chinese national history.

Additionally, a strategy of using representations reminiscent of the past has been employed to forge a link between Taiwan and China. One example of this is the promotion of traditional Chinese writing in Taiwan, in contrast to the simplified Chinese used in mainland China, which underwent the Cultural Revolution, leading to the erasure of authentic Chinese heritage. The objective behind efforts to replicate and preserve 'Chinese' elements in Taiwan was to construct a "pure" Chinese national history, disregarding influences from Taiwan and Japan.

The KMT’s unbudging persistence in emphasizing official national name "Republic of China" and downplaying or even prohibiting the usage of "Taiwan" or "Formosa" in official contexts was driven by a mnemonic significance and functional need to preserve an uninterrupted narrative of China's national history. For the KMT, any deviation or termination of the interconnected 5,000-year Chinese national history would either contaminate or signify the end of the Republic Era.

Taiwanese Nationalists Fights Back

In response, since the uplifting of martial law in 1987 and radical democratization and liberalization of Taiwanese Society, Taiwanese Nationalists have instigated the "Rectification Campaign" with the objective of introducing a discontinuity in the narrative of Chinese national history. Their aim was to substitute terms such as "China," "Republic of China," and "Taipei" with "Taiwan" in official documents and organizations.

After assuming the presidency in 2000, Chen Shui-bian, the pro-independence candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party, placed significant emphasis on Taiwan as a symbol, positioning it prominently in representations while relegating other symbols to a secondary role. Under the rule of the KMT, it would have impossible to centralize Taiwan and diminish the significance of the Republic of China (ROC). Taiwan was viewed as a transitory entity in the KMT's overarching objective of reclaiming the mainland, consequently discouraging the development of a distinct Taiwanese national identity.

During his second term, Chen went as far as seeking UN membership under the name "Taiwan," after previous unsuccessful attempts using the name "ROC." Although the proposal faced rejection, Chen's advocacy for "Taiwan" within the UN has become a notable theme in Taiwanese politics, diverging from the opposing KMT party's promotion of "ROC." In essence, there was a strong call for Taiwan to be an independent political entity with its name simply "Taiwan" and to promote desinicization.

After Ma Ying-jeou assumed the presidency in 2008, previous initiatives were reversed, and the focus returned to centralizing "China" and "Republic of China" to uphold a Chinese national identity and establish a connection between Taiwan and its extensive 5,000-year national history. The official designation of "Republic of China" was deemed crucial to achieving this objective.

The absence of recognition and legitimacy for the official country name of Taiwan, along with the lack of universal acknowledgment and frequent confusion between the ROC and the PRC, further complicates the naming issue. This highlights the challenge of establishing a distinct Taiwanese identity. The ongoing utilization of both the names Taiwan and ROC gives rise to intricate problems that, if not addressed, will continue to have a detrimental impact on the nation's identity.

The Surfacing of Taiwan in Chinese Nationalism

The importance of Taiwan to China's national identity has become more important over time due to developing internal and external factors confronting the Chinese Communist Party. Internal factors such as China’s transition to a capitalist economy has generated an identity crisis for both the party and the nation. There was a need for a new national identity and consequently, this led to the rise of new national narratives such as the "century of national humiliation" which was used to generate pathos for the nation.

According to the CCP's narrative, China was able to overcome the century of national humiliation due to the Party's efforts, which also led to the country's economic boom. Traumatic experiences, such as Japan's invasion in the 1930s, helped emphasize China's moral legitimacy.

Externally, China's approach to Taiwan became increasingly significant in the 1970s due to events such as the PRC-U.S. rapprochement. This is supported by mentions of Taiwan's "liberation" in the PRC constitution, with the first mention occurring in the preamble of the March 1978 version.

The Taiwan issue is one of the few topics that unite Chinese people in the post-1989 era. Despite limited studies on the success of these measures or Chinese people's views on the Taiwan issue, it appears that Chinese views on Taiwan generally align with the official stance.

Today, the CCP's legitimacy has become increasingly tied to the Taiwan issue, especially as China's ambitions as a great power and its relations with the US have grown more complex. Deng Xiaoping's decision to link Taiwan to the integrity of China's international standing and stability of CCP rule has significantly and perhaps unintendedly heightened the stakes over the Taiwan question.


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